Wednesday, 25 March 2015

On Games Journalism: The Complications.

So, Joe Martin, a short while back, wrote a deservedly scathing piece on Games Journalism and Money , specifically the phenomenon (Which I myself have fallen victim to at least once in the past, for reasons I'm going to go into) of unpaid reviewing, often badly justified. I'd recommend you read that piece first, because it's an actual concern, and it's pretty widespread. Furthermore, I'm going to go into a bit of detail as to why this hurts the industry in general.

So, the problem of pay is one that has struck journalism all over, but has affected Games Journalism on pretty much an endemic basis, pretty much since the internet hit. There are also several factors that complicate things, and it's those I want to go into a little.

There Is No "Ideal" Pay Scale

I thought I understood this game at about five hours. Then I hit the biiiig difficulty spike for completionists at around fifteen. I still play an hour or two every now and again, but it will be a long time before I finish it.

That you should be paid for your writing, and that the review copies are tools for your job, not the pay itself, is indisputable. It is a product you are meant to review, for your job. But there are only two types of payscale out there: Flat rate, and per [X Period]. Neither of them are ideal for games reviewing. Let's start with per hour, to illustrate the point.

Let us say I am paid £6.75 an hour (Pretty close to the minimum wage for my country) for reviewing one of two games. One of them takes four hours to complete (Allowing a complete picture of the game), another can be completed in thirty hours, but a complete picture of how the game works may take up to fifty. Bam, instant lack of incentive to choose the smaller (But possibly better) game. It doesn't help that, unless it's on Steam, your editor can't actually check how many hours you've played unless all work is done in the office. As any freelancer can tell you, this mostly isn't where you're doing things from.

The same applies to a flat rate, but the other way around... I am encouraged to pick the smaller game to review, because it will give me a better return on my writing. It must also be noted that how buggy a game is can further skew this, one way or the other. Sword of the Stars 2, for example, brought my computer to a BSOD four times when I reviewed it, and if that had screwed my computer? Well, then either the editor has to fork out for replacements (Providing the company has such policies, and really, since they're also tools of work, they technically should), or you're out of pocket for not only the review (Which won't be able to be technically finished), but also the replacement parts.

"What about a sliding scale?" Ah, well that disincentivises the editors and owners from larger games. They have to pay you more, for a larger product.

Personally, I'm okay with a good flat rate, and so are most folks I know. But it's not ideal, and I doubt it ever will be. But so long as I feel compensated for the hours of work, I'm good.

Many Editors Won't Take Ex-Unpaid Writers

You may like my writing, you may not. I hope you do, because I enjoy writing, and I enjoy talking about games. But the very fact that I have, in the past, gambled on a startup which has pulled this unpaid (Oh, but we'll pay you if the site starts paying out!) bullshit has, and will bar me from writing for many paid sites.

In my defence, I will say that unemployment makes you do desperate things at times, reaching for any olive branch that will even have a chance of getting you out of the dole queue. But it also needs to be said that punishing the potential writer for taking such a gamble, out of desire for entering a field that, quite frankly, isn't amazingly friendly to newbies (Due to limited paid positions, and a relatively low turnover in writers) is Not Cricket.

Judge a writer by their writing, by their passion, their style, and their eye. Please don't judge a writer for falling for promises, because as it stands, it's not easy to get in to the treehouse.

Why It's Hard To Get Into The Paid End

A selection from ... Most of these adverts can and will use the language in Joe's article. Oh, it's always so fun to scroll through the- [shoots self]

Go google game writing jobs. I'm a member of a LinkedIn group for video game writers. I search every now and again. And 90% of what you find will effectively be these unpaid internships. Even many of the "paid" positions will either have some restrictive conditions, or will have catches. I'm looking at one right now that isn't paid in the work sense, but offers $30 for the "best contributor of the month". Of the month. I'm looking at another, and I don't actually see a mention of pay beyond its existence. I may ask them what, exactly, they're paying... But I don't expect a very useful answer.

I can remember the last time PC Gamer made a call for new freelancers. because I sent a piece in. I can't recall getting a reply back, though. And you can guarantee a lot of writers applied. We've already mentioned low turnover on paid sites, but another problem is knowing which sites pay. Because you can guarantee jobsites like Indeed or LinkedIn aren't too helpful. You can definitely guarantee many places and groups specifically for game journalism are going to be a fucking slog, because all of them, to some extent or another (With an average of "Two hours before potentially finding an actual paid job on a given day) suffer from the problem I've already mentioned.

It's Not A "Real" Job

I'm writing this one from a mainly UK perspective, but it's true nearly everywhere that, to many folks (Including our "lovely" Department of Work and Pensions), writing reviews, much less games journalism, isn't a "real" job. Never mind that breach of contract is a real thing. Never mind that reviewing and games journalism has a code of ethics. Never mind that, if you're doing the job, you should get paid for it. Getting advocacy for rights to the pay that you deserve is an uphill struggle, because the majority of folks who could advocate for you, who could punish potential employers for an unlawful (and unethical) internship contract, aren't going to, because people still think of games as this limited, almost whimsical field.

"Oh, you play games for money? How quaint."

Yeah, tell that to the QA Team who are tearing their hair out (sometimes literally), right this very minute, when they're told "Oh, we'll wait for the Console QA team to report this bug before we take it seriously" (An actual thing I have heard from at least one QA lead, although I will protect the sources). Tell that to the copywriters, panicking because there's no way anyone's going to buy this thing the company rushed, no matter how they dress it up, all over a fucking release date. And tell that to me, who lost at least one computer in the line of reviewing, who has had companies stop talking to him because he wasn't afraid to say that their product was deeply flawed , and who has been told at times that 26 hours is nowhere near enough to have an idea of how to review Skyrim... Despite the fact that the game can be completed in less than 20 if you don't faff about, and a number of other factors that conspire to say "Why yes, actually, you can get enough of a picture in 30 hours to review quite a lot of games."

It All Ties Together

Image Source: An article by The Drum on "The Ad Tech Minefield". Only somewhat fitting, but still...

Of course, this leads to a gigantic interrelated clusterfuck. We're saturated in potential viewpoints, and that's good, variety in viewpoints is useful for reviews! Problem is, for the newcomer to the field (Or even someone like me, who did 3 years of reviewing and games writing), it's not easy to get paid. You're going to get a lot of heartbreak, a lot of applications with no reply, and you're going to be told that it isn't a real job. It's tempting to write somewhere for free, but the very act of doing so, no matter how much it builds your skills from practice (And hopefully mentoring) is going to close doors on you.

It's small wonder so many folks are trying to pay their bills through crowdfunding, and I'm going to be doing the same as soon as the materials are in place. Because we're not a friendly field... In fact, right now, we're a minefield. And it's going to take a lot of work to dig out those mines.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

[System X] Or Nothing.

So, a friend of mine recently tweeted something at me that made me think. It was relatively simple, and it was an expression of frustration:

"I guess it had to be D20 or nothing."

I've definitely been there. I guess, in a sense, I still am there, because I don't currently have a group. Either way, this was about a game called Shadowrun. Shadowrun is awesome: It's a dystopian cyberpunk future where magic is also a thing, and over the years, the writers have fused the two together in some very interesting ways. But some folks really do get stuck in a rut with a system, leading to some very strange statements. In this particular case, the claim was Shadowrun was "too limiting."

Ummm... Okay, let's think about this for a moment.

D20 Style games use a class based system. This doesn't always make sense.

Unsurprisingly, there are no pictures of a Fighter/Wizard/Cleric/Rogue that I could find. This might tell you something...

When you make a character in a D20 game, they are going to be something. A Fighter. A Wizard. The Quick Lady. The Jedi. The Rapscallion. The Gentleman. They're mostly archetypal, a foundation on which to build your character.

But they also mostly allow taking a new class whenever, and this can make some heavy work for the GM. For example, let's take DnD 3.5, and the Fighter example. They start with the ability to use most weapons and heavy armour, something not every class has access to. Then there's the Sorcerer. Their thing is that they have magic from some inborn talent, that then expresses itself. Multiclassing into Sorcerer makes a sort of sense, as it's not something you learn, it's something you suddenly find was part of you all along.

But the Sorcerer isn't the only magic class in DnD. There's also the Wizard, and letting someone suddenly become a Wizard, in most DnD settings, is... Problematic. Why?

Wizards have taken years of training. So have fighters. In the story sense, that's like training for two different lifetime vocations. So it makes less sense in a story sense. It makes less sense in the rules sense, because Wizards start having learned spells (from said years of training), and written them down in a spellbook (Written over the course of said training, and, again in most DnD settings, writing in a spellbook itself is a learned skill with specialist materials).

If you take Wizard as a second class, the GM not only has to agree how that could possibly make sense in the setting and backstory you've already provided, or set the groundwork for you having learned how to be a wizard with little to no warning, they also have the terrible choice of either handing you a spellbook, somehow, somewhere, or not letting you have any of the accoutrements of a wizard until you beg, buy, steal, or find them. Which has just locked you out of the whole reason you got Wizard in the first place.

Not even counting the problems with Fighter/Wizard in DnD in general, this already has the potential to wrongfoot even a stellar GM.

Shadowrun Does This Differently

This Troll probably sucks at using the internet. But who gives a fuck, he has a license for that axe, and can summon ghost bears!

By contrast, Shadowrun lets you have the potential to be a mage from the get-go, while never barring you from combat training. But it also realistically expects that, if you're going to get those mage skills, you're going to have to work for it. And it has perfectly reasonable explanations as to why you can't be an Technomancer-Hermetic-Adept-Street Samurai:

1) Magic expresses itself very specific ways. A Technomancer is not just a different set of training, but, in a sense, a different mutation. Magic has touched the Technomancer in a way that it didn't touch a Hermetic Mage, or a Shaman, or the Physical Adept.
2) Skill points represent the kind of training you've had... College/University courses, spending time in a military programme, spending time on the darker side of the Interwubs, progressing from fawning script-kiddy to a Name To Tell Stories About. Anyone who's ever gone into any of these things will know that, at best, you can probably do only a few of these things, and if you want to get good, you're going to have to specialise.

So, in a sense, it is limited. But it's the kind of limited that leads to characters, not a collection of numbers that is nigh unbeatable unless the GM decides to play equally unfairly.

I'm not dissing D20, by the way, it does cinematic, combat based gameplay very well. But it leads into two points I wanted to make:

Game Systems are Designed for Specific Purposes

If you can't guess what this game is all about... I really can't help you. But it illustrates the point perfectly!

Now, we're not gonna really get into the paradigm of Gamist-Simulationist-Narrativist here (mainly because those are generalised categories of game design), but we're going to talk about what game systems emphasise.

D20 emphasises combat. It doesn't do "social combat" very well, and it's basically mainly good for a very specific type of game: One where you do a lot of fighting. Beyond that, the rules don't really back it up as well as you'd like. It's a power fantasy, it's about Being Epic, and it has no time for your discussions on the nature of the society you live in. There is a dragon to be slain, and no-name NPCs to save! Different editions had different focuses, but basically, it does Archetypes in High Fantasy Situations quite well, and everything else only so so.

Shadowrun, by contrast, emphasises the deadliness of combat. It also emphasises speed, forward planning, and networking. It's better than D20 for the "social combat" end of things, but the main thrust of it is that you are a team of professionals who could get fucked at any time by any other team of professionals. In a way, it's more democratic, because that no-name NPC could just as easily kill you with 25 Lbs of hi-grade plastique as you could using the same method. It's just, very often, no-name NPC doesn't have hi-grade plastique, and you do.  Probably not the best way to explain it, but there's a whole slew of subtle (and not so subtle) differences that make for a different experience.

The *World games, like Monsterhearts, emphasise the social end of things. The combat is barebones, but is itself a means to an end. In Monsterhearts, yes, you can fight to kill the bad evil guy or hapless mook... But it's more likely you're using combat as a means to get a social hold on someone, give them a reason to do that thing you want them to do. Because in Monsterhearts, you're teenagers. You're not heroes or mercenaries, like Shadowrun and D20. You're teens, the world doesn't make sense (or makes too much sense in all the wrong ways), and the game emphasises the emotional rollercoaster that being a teen entails. That it's laser focused on this has made it quite popular.

How nearly every Paranoia character ends up. Just so you know ahead of time. Also, please report to termination for receiving knowledge above your security clearance, Citzen, thanks in advance!

Paranoia, as our final example of this point, is about living in a world gone blackly, hilariously mad, about being a cog in a machine that's definitely not working as intended, and about fucking up. You are a member of a secret society. Secret Societies are illegal (punishable by death). You are a mutant. Mutants, unless registered (and thus spat upon) are illegal (punishable by death). You are a Troubleshooter, a throwaway resource of a society that is meant to fix these irreconcilable problems in the society, caused by the society that's ordering you to do it, and the only way you're going to get anything done is by breaking the rules. Which you aren't even meant to know in the first place (Showing knowledge of this thing called Paranoia Rulebook is punishable by death, Citizen). Everything about the rules emphasises this, including the fact that your fellow Troubleshooters are all traitors, you are a traitor, and your goals, both public and secret, contradict themselves in a way that's going to get you killed... But it's relatively consequence free, because all but the SRS BSNS versions of the rules allow you to die multiple times with no consequences.

Every game does something different, and it's important to know this. It's also important to know that every setting does something different, and you can mix and match for a tighter focus on what you want. D20 Shadowrun is about Bigger, Better Guns. *World Shadowrun is all about what kind of person Running the Shadows makes you. And Paranoia Shadowrun is probably a very scary thing... Please let me know in the comments if anyone has been crazy enough to try that, and how it went.

A Game/Group Lives or Dies By Communication and Co-Operation (Even in Paranoia)

Probably not the best example.

There is a phrase, bandied about on a thread about gaming stories, and it's one I want you to keep in mind:

Better no game at all than a bad game.

Roleplaying is a co-operative thing, and it's important for the fun of all that you're on the same page. My friend didn't want to play a power fantasy Monty Hall game where you go into dungeons, kill monsters, and eventually become a living demi-god that breaks the fabric of reality and common sense nine times before breakfast. This, from the conversation I had, was exactly what this GM seemed to always want. And being clear about this, instead of faffing about, would have made it clear, earlier on, that this isn't the GM for that.

D20 isn't fun if you aren't down for a certain kind of game. Paranoia seems needlessly hurtful and competitive if you aren't down for what's meant to be a light-hearted, backstabby game (The kind where you playfully cry "You git! I pull out my gun and waste 'em!" ... And then get blown up by your friend, Mister Computer, for not being a Good Citizen (TM) ...) Monsterhearts seems "too real" unless you set boundaries on what subjects are going to come up in your Twilight inspired high-school, and Shadowrun can be decidedly unfair if you aren't all agreeing that the story is a higher priority than Bigger and Better Guns.

Talk to your friends, if you want to roleplay. Explore the possibilities. Think about what kind of fun or exploration you want to have together. And while you may end up saying "Yeah, perhaps it's best if we don't"... More often, you'll find yourself exploring other viewpoints, other worlds... And having a whale of a time doing it.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Plan

So, today, awesome things happened. A couple of friends did some cool things, and, in the process, inspired me to get back to the frontline. Back to seriously pushing video game writing, and maybe paying my god-damn bills with it.

It's a good feeling, and lemme tell you, right now, I'm full of piss and vinegar. But for all that inspirations struck, and, to a certain extent, motivation has returned, I need to make sure I've got a Plan.

Plans are important. They're important for moustache twirlers like me, because without them, we're just cackling half-heartedly with fuck all to do on a Saturday night. They're important when taking a big leap like this, where you're not actually sure anyone's going to read what you write. They're good for a number of situations, and I think we'll leave it at that.

So right now, my Plan is pretty simple. I know there are at least some people who like the things I have to say. I have a good mic, and can record and edit vids (Even if it's a pain in the ass right now... Thanks, Adobe, you really had my back there... [mutters vile profanities]). I have a domain.

But I need to get in touch with folks, I need to get material, I need, most importantly of all, to get the site up and running.

So here's The Plan:

1) Eat my somewhat late tea, and a cup of tea to go with it.

2) Sleep, because as much as piss and vinegar are good for ranting or short pieces, it's important to me to consider what I'm writing. Plus, I want to see if I still have the same determination in the morning, when my tongue feels like all the cats in the world shed on it, and the view from my window is giving me an equally determined Fuck You.

3) Finish the Wonderland pieces I'm writing for The Adventure Gamer. Depression, software problems, and other Fun Stuff have kinda delayed that. Gotta get used to deadlining myself again.

4) Pull up the specs for the site, and CLEAN UP THE LOGO. Yes, I've had a logo for some time. The current version isn't what I'm happy with, though, and get a quote from some buds who know their stuff when it comes to site design and setup. It's important to know when you don't have the tools, and someone else does.


It's a little sketchy, as it requires convincing at least a few developers that yes, I can write and be seen, and yes, I'm going to cover their product as fairly as I can... While still pointing out that if I think it sucks, that's the be all and end all of my piece, and I'm only kind of sorry about that. If it helps, I don't play favourites. But I've done that before, back when I started, and fucked if I can't do it again.

Oh... Step 1.5: That's the one for right now, while I sip my tea and munch on what can definitely be described as "Food", but nowhere near "The balanced meal you want for a long life". Thank the people who gave me my fire back, even if the morning makes me reconsider. Even if tomorrow, I go right back to umming, and ahhing, and in Upended Turtle mode. Thanks for being you. Carry on being you, you know who you are.

Right, time to finish this, peace out. Let's see what tomorrow brings.